JAMES M DORSEY: Last week’s visit by president Sepp Blatter to the Middle East spotlighted FIFA’s role as a pillar of the existing political and football governance order under the guise of a fictional separation between sports and politics – rather than as a force for greater transparency and accountability.
To be sure, Blatter’s support of Israeli Football Association chief Avi Luzon during his visit upheld the principle of a ban on government interference in the affairs of national football associations.
It also demonstrated that this is a principle that works to some degree in functioning democracies but becomes a farce in autocracies where governments control governance of the game with or without the façade of formal elections.
The main thrust of Blatter’s visit was to ease Israeli restrictions that hamper Palestinian football.
Nevertheless, his thinly-veiled threat that the IFA would be suspended and the Israeli national team banned from international competition put a halt to calls by Israeli culture and sport minister Limor Livnat forLuzon’s resignation because of an alleged conflict of interest.
A committee appointed by Livnat had demanded Luzon’s resignation of Luzon on the grounds that his affiliation with football club Maccabi Petah Tikva was in conflict with his position as head of the IFA.
Livnat’s gunning for Luzonwas no doubt motivated politically. Luzon chaired Maccabi before becoming IFA president and still attends the club’s games.
Nevertheless, what Blatter’s support did not do was ensure an independent investigation into the allegation that would have been in line with best practice rather than uphold football governance’s policing of itself.
That policing mechanism is fundamentally flawed – witness the massive corruption scandals that have rocked world football in the last three years.
By the same token, FIFA has effectively been a pillar of autocracy in the Middle East and North Africa by seldom intervening in a world in which football associations are controlled by the ruler’s pawns or members of ruling families.
In doing so, it has allowed autocrats to control the only non-religious institution that provides a venue for protest in the absence or advance of a popular revolt.
The mosque and the football pitch constitute the two venues where autocrats cannot simply crack down on protesters because football is the one thing that evokes a similar deep-seated to religion and because of the sheer number of people involved in a football-crazy part of the world.
Beyond the key role that militant football fans played in successful anti-autocratic revolts such as the overthrow in 2011 ofEgypt’s Hosni Mubarak, the football pitch has become a venue of protest in a host of countries includingSaudi Arabia,Iran,MoroccoandAlgeria.
Underlying FIFA’s failure to enforce best practice and its non-interference in government manipulation is the fictional notion that politics and sports do not and should not mix.
Nothing could be further from the truth irrespective of whether in a democracy or an autocratic system: one need look only at the composition of the FIFA executive board or the International Olympic Committee.
Greater transparency and accountability as well as the enabling of powerful international sports associations to live up to their lofty principles and values would be enhanced significantly by recognising reality for what it is: sports and politics are inextricably intertwined.
Denial of this fact of life undermines and lacks credibility.
That sports and politics are intertwined is evident at every twist of the road from the direct involvement of rulers, politicians and governments in the boards and executive committees of regional and international sports associations to the use of mega events by nations and governments to the role that global governing bodies play in the legitimisation of rulers.
Recognising that reality would open the door to enforcing a charter or code of conduct that would govern the relationship of sports and politics.
That, of course, is the one thing that neither politics nor the existing sports governance structure wants.
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JAMES M DORSEY is a Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg, and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer
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